[ENS, by Mary Frances Schjonberg] The slogan on the conference bag read: “Episcopal Evangelist. It’s not an oxymoron.” While some people might think that an Episcopal evangelist is a rare breed, more than 400 evangelism veterans and fledgling practitioners spent Friday and Saturday (19-19 November) being inspired, finding camaraderie and learning new ways to live up to that slogan during the Evangelism Matters conference at Church of the Transfiguration in Dallas, Texas.
Fighting the oxymoron perception begins with individuals, the Revd Stephanie Spellers, the Presiding Bishop’s canon for evangelism and reconciliation, said during Saturday’s plenary, asking “why do we need a conference to convince ourselves or to proclaim that evangelism matters?
“I think you know why,” she answered. “I think we know that, deep down, we’ve been ambivalent” about even the word “evangelism,” much less being evangelists.
When she asked people to shout out why that is so, some of the answers were “fear of rejection,” “fear of looking tacky,” “hurtful things that have been done in the name of evangelism,” “leave it to the clergy,” “people have to be gifted to do evangelism” and “I’m not sure; what is the Good News?”
Evangelism Matters, which quickly sold out its 400 spaces and then made room for 14 more, was co-sponsored by Forward Movement and the Presiding Bishop’s Office, and was hosted by the Diocese of Dallas and Church of the Transfiguration.
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, during his keynote address and again during his sermon, both on Friday, set an ambitious agenda, gave a rousing call to action and clarified what Episcopal evangelism is and is not.
“Jesus did not go to the cross for a bigger church,” Curry said during his address, adding that, likewise, evangelism doesn’t have anything to do with making a bigger church; it has to do with a better world. It also has nothing to do with cultural or religious imperialism, the Presiding Bishop said. “This is not about conquering the world for Christ,” he said during his sermon. “It’s about saturating the world with love.”
Maybe, Curry suggested, the Episcopal Church is supposed to tell the world that Christianity’s foundation is the love shown in Jesus. And, he said, God is at work in this growing awareness. “I think we’re in one of those cultural moments in which we very well may be participating in God’s re-evangelisation of the western world and a re-evangelisation via a Christianity that resembles Jesus.”
Curry said “evangelism is about going home and helping each other find the way” and it is about helping people find God and build a relationship with God, who made them for love and longs for them.
“Evangelism matters because God didn’t make us for a nightmare,” he said.
Curry described his dreams for the church. In what he called a fantasised possibility and not a proposed program or an official statement, he asked the conference to imagine what it would be like if the Episcopal Church adopted the model of Doctors Without Borders by marshalling its resources and going anywhere there is a need.
“What if the churchwide budget – General Convention – said to heck with some of this structure, let’s just use this money for evangelism wherever there is a need?” he asked, adding the question of what if dioceses purposefully contributed to evangelism going on anywhere in the church.
Curry asked what would happen if every time a church had to close somewhere and the property sold “some percentage of that money were taken and put in a ‘new generation fund’ to start new churches anywhere in the Church “so that the death of one leads to the resurrection of another?”
The audience responded with loud and sustained applause.
One of the organisers, the Revd Frank Logue, Diocese of Georgia canon to the ordinary and Executive Council member, said that the size and mood of the conference was evidence of God at work. “We dreamed of something happening in the church and God did something more than we could have dreamed of,” he said.
But, he added, the conference has to be a beginning, not an accomplishment. It could be tempting to accept Curry’s self-declared role as “chief evangelism officer” and assume that is all that is needed.
“If we want to rely on our presiding bishop alone, as talented as he is, we will have made him into an idol and it would be better to ask him to step down,” Logue said.
Instead, as the Anglican Communion secretary general, Dr Josiah Idowu-Fearon suggested during short remarks to the conference, if Episcopalians become chief evangelism officers in their diocese, their congregations and in their families, “then we will have really joined the movement.”
Dr Idowu-Fearon praised the Episcopal Church for “re-evangelising this part of the Anglican Communion.” Later, during a press conference, he said that rest of Anglican Communion needs to know that the Episcopal Church talks not just about human sexuality; it talks about evangelism, too, and that it is setting an example of attempting to live together amid difference, contextualizing the gospel.
- This is an edited version of an in-depth report by the Revd Mary Frances Schjonberg for the Episcopal News Service. Click here to read the full report.